The historic phone call between President Obama and Iranian President Rouhani has been the biggest foreign policy story of the week, yet we have remained relatively silent on the issue. The truth is that we have been waiting for the dust to settle before taking a view, because there are a few different ways to look at this.The optimistic view is that Iran is feeling a lot of pain from the sanctions and figures that it can get the best deal from Obama. While it will bargain hard, it is ready in principle to come to a genuinely workable agreement.A more pessimistic view is that Iran is overplaying its hand: it figures that Obama is so vacillating and weak that he is looking for a face-saving way to retreat from his core demands. If this is true, any negotiations will sputter along until the Iranians realize the Americans aren’t looking for a non-humiliating surrender and the Americans realize the Iranians aren’t serious about a real deal.And then there’s the gray zone—where Iran offers an approach that the Obama administration kind of likes, but the Israelis, Saudis and some of the national security establishment in the US doesn’t think does the job.Of the three, we are hoping for the first, but think the odds don’t favor it, partly because there are regional issues as well as nukes to be discussed—does Iran think Assad staying in power is part of the deal? Option two would simply leave us where we are now when it sputters out, with the administration locked rhetorically into a potential war that it really doesn’t want to fight. And option three is the messiest of all. Domestically, Iran hawks are unlikely to be able to block a deal they don’t like—especially at a time when the whole country is heartily sick of the Middle East and is willing to give any path that looks like an exit a try. Internationally it could be trickier—history has seen stranger bedfellows than the Israelis and the Saudis and in both cases there are lots of concerns about a nuclear Iran.The one promising sign here is that it is in both the interests of Iran and the US to get a deal—neither side gains anything from forcing this to war. The US basically wants a favorable balance of power in the Middle East that blocks any single country from having the ability to interrupt the flow of oil to world markets. Over the years we’ve fallen in and out with most of the major players in the region (Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Israel) but have seen Saudi Arabia as a combination brass ring (because it has so much oil) and canary in the coal mine (because if anybody was going to try to gain the ability to block the oil flow, they would have to deal with the Saudis).In principle, political hostilities and grudges aside and bracketing all concerns about the nature of the Iranian regime, the US and Iran can work out a deal.But in practice, the deal has been elusive. The widespread perception in the Middle East that Obama is indecisive probably does encourage Iran to explore the possibility that it can get a better deal from him. That is probably the reason for this diplomatic opening—but that doesn’t mean the US shouldn’t explore it. We should, but we should also not give our key regional allies the sense that we are about to sell them down the river in order to get peace with Iran.[Hassan Rouhani photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]
Could Obama and Rouhani Make a Deal?
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